There is a duality to Bill Gates’ writing; a core message to humanity, split into two sentences of equal importance, and, if ignored, equal consequence. The first is this: carry out the solutions we have found. The second: find what is missing. When practiced in tandem, these two separate clauses create an endless cycle of action and reflection, taking responsibility before learning what those responsibilities are – and, of course, why they are – before, of course, taking responsibility again.
Unlike Attenborough, for instance, Gates’ focus is placed squarely on the world’s titans – government and business – and the ways in which they ought to be pioneering a greener technology. His unique position on the fault line separating the tech industry’s past and future ensures an equally unique perspective on issues which are so often placed in the hands of the individual, rather than the most influential entities in the world.
These groups, the ones responsible for those unconscionable emissions, are concerned with (at least) one of five areas in need of drastic change: making things, plugging in, growing things, getting around, and keeping cool and warm.
This fact leads us onto another profound quality of Gates’ interest in climate reparations, and that is where his concern lies. Of course, there is a concern for the earth, but rather than the traditional flow of instructing the world’s citizens on how to save the planet, it is an instruction to the titans on how to save the world’s citizens:
The cruel injustice is that even though the world’s poor are doing essentially nothing to cause climate change, they’re going to suffer the most from it.
With this, the reader finds a profundity that comes to define the white space between numbers, data, projections and sobering statistics. For, after all, both Bill Gates and the selective world he has inhabited for decades communicate in cold facts – of which there is no shortage in any frank discussion on climate change.
Finding What is Missing
Gates is a self-professed numbers man, more comfortable on a team of engineers than a political summit. For this reason alone, it seems only fitting to begin this section with a series of numbers. According to Gates, the world needs to reduce the greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere by 51 billion tonnes every 365 days. That is a little more than 139,726,027 a day, every day, until we reached a worldwide goal of net zero emissions in 2050.
The most obvious missing piece is a clear commitment to the cause – a definitive, global move in favour of those things that we have already found. For instance, in a review for The Guardian, Gordon Brown describes how Gates’ own suggestions could be copied verbatim into the UK’s agenda or the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26) this November. The likelihood of that happening is, of course, slim – and yet it would represent a readymade collation of our existing solutions, and their practical applications around a world that is suffering carbon emissions 65% higher than they were thirty years ago.
Thus, any discussion on ‘what is missing’ from the global climate initiative shared between government and business will inevitably run up against a decided lack of coherence and, more basic still, communication.
Besides that, however, a great deal remains absent from the status quo – it’s not as though every largescale entity is pursuing their own climate-saving agenda, and simply failing to get on the same ‘wavelength’ as everyone else.
When it comes to practicalities, Gates’ interest lies primarily in technologically-driven sustainability – something which, by now, we all know is integral to a long-term solution. Rather than replacing current practices and technologies, we need to transform them, and use the near-limitless power of a technological world to address any new problems which may – and most definitely will – arise.
Renewable energy production could, according to Gates’ analysis, account for just over 25% of our yearly target of -51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses. When it comes electricity generation, our relentless dependence on oil, coal and gas in order to provide power to industry continues to poison the atmosphere, and worsen meteorological conditions for some of the most vulnerable communities around the world – all while that same power remains unattainable to them.
Thus, Gates puts forth a mission of two parts: to strip power of its socioeconomic limitations, and to strip it of its power to do harm to the atmosphere. This homogenisation of energy – both in terms of access and production – should represent the first major step toward a net zero world, and, of course, one which truly targets those who have been relegated to the weakest position of all.
All technologies – technologies we already have at our disposal, and which have been made significantly more attainable in recent years – can work in tandem to ensure a scalable system of energy production, storage and use.
From wind and solar to nuclear fission and thermal energy, a technologically-driven green revolution will effectively ‘plug into’ natural power sources, and harness renewable energies to the extent they are capable of.
He also turns to fascinating new scientific methods and technologies which can, if applied on the right scale, actively remove CO2 from our atmosphere. Capturing CO2 within lime-based sorbents, or storing it within concrete, for instance, both represent two exciting new lines of inquiry for those working on the ‘front line’ of CO2 removal.
In the past, we have touched upon the power of revolutionising mass food production, as put forth in Woody Harrelson’s ‘Kiss the Ground’ – and, by extension, quite how ecologically damaging ‘traditional’ practices for mass production really are. Deforestation, methane emissions from excessive livestock rearing – even crop cultivation, which sounds, to an outsider, like one of the most natural practices available to us – are now proving indefensible.
Again, this represents an area which is demanding a as many technological and scientific breakthroughs as we can manage.
An investor in many sustainability-driven agricultural projects – from Pivot Bio, which seeks to replace the nitrous oxide emissions from commercial fertilisers used on cereal crops with microbial nitrogen production, to a new generation of meat-alternative pioneers, such as Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods.
Again, his core message is designed to appeal to the engineers and scientists, rather than any political faction. The way forward is via innovation, rather than a singular moment in the pollical world. It has to be made possible – and then it has to be deployed. If we manage it, a revolution in this sector alone could account for around 18% of our target reduction.
While it may not garner a great deal of attention in the discussions to which we, as individual citizens, are privy, the production of materials as common as glass, steel, cement, aluminium and paper are surpassed in their ability to harm the planet only by agriculture and ‘dirty’ power generation.
Thus, while plastic garners the worst reputation among consumer circles, it really only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of environmental damage.
While recycling is, undoubtedly, essential to progress, we also need to review our production cycle – a process which begins with the design of products, and culminates in the methods of production we utilise.
One of the most integral aspects to this new mindset is, of course, renewable energy production. Creating essential materials places unimaginable demands on energy production, but we already have the green solution – now, it falls under the responsibilities of governmental bodies and weighty corporations to do the rest.
As Gates writes in a recent blog post entitled, How Do We Move Around in a Zero-Carbon World?, the first thought that pops into our heads when we think about climate change are our cars – a fact which continues to grow truer as a new, whisper-quiet and technologically-advanced wave of electric vehicles make their way onto our roads and motorways.
In reality, Gates writes, this area of life makes a relatively small difference – around 16% -- but nevertheless we should change it sooner rather than later, particularly when we consider the impact curtailed travel has had on our quality of life, and the economy, over the course of the past 12 months.
Again, the solution lies in both existing and still-theoretical innovations – continued improvement to batteries for EVs, which will minimise our impact as citizens. Similarly, for commercial travel and haulage, bio- and electrofuels must be embraced as a resource to fill in the gaps that batteries are not yet capable of filling, in addition to a concerted effort to lower costs on all fronts, and rule out fossil fuels as an efficient or economical option.
Keeping Cool and Warm
This is something that will continue to gain significance as the world undergoes major – and, now, tangible – changes to its climactic conditions, and communities around the world face more drastic conditions. For Gates, and in accordance with the tone of his book, the onus falls on governments and businesses working directly within the sector to provide greener alternatives to keeping our buildings at ambient temperatures; it cannot be made the sole responsibility of the homeowner, or small business owner.
Rather, and once again, technological solutions must be drawn into a rhythm of innovation, cost-reduction, implementation, ad infinitum.
While the core message of Gates’ book is intended for those with the most power – bodies which hold more power than any one person – it offers invaluable insight to the world’s current position, as of 2021, and the strange contradiction we find ourselves in. We are poised on the brink of a new technological revolution, and yet, instead, it could so easily become a mere protraction of the one that came before – one that prioritised fast progress over basic health and safety.
The politicians need to listen, but most important those with the power to create change – rather than simply affecting it – need to work more diligently than ever before to create sustainable solutions to new and old problems.
And, as individuals, we can still extract a vital message from this book, even if we hold no sway in politics, science, or engineering. We can pursue technologies which already exist, fervently and without compromise – hold accountable those businesses and governments who intentionally turn a blind eye to them – and, of course, commit to the notion that new solutions can and will be made, rather than believing that sustainability comes at a cost, or demands some sacrifice from all of us.